HONG KONG, China — As Hong Kong’s protests continued to mutate and spread to more parts of the territory on Tuesday, at the same time about 1,500 kilometers to the north, the entire Chinese leadership was attending a carefully choreographed event in Tiananmen Square on the eve of the 65th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.
The contrasts were striking even in the mind, but then a Hong Kong news channel decided to go split-screen: on one side, a grainy live shot of the haphazard Occupy Central movement in the middle of the financial district in Hong Kong; on the other, the highly regimented event in Beijing where nothing was left to chance, and nothing was allowed to upstage the President.
For the protesters, sleepless and braving downpours, the irony was obvious. But imagine how Chinese President Xi Jinping was feeling when news continued to reach him that those pesky Hongkongers are still demonstrating, blockading, and humiliating Beijing by demanding the removal of someone they regard as a Communist stooge, Leung Chun-ying, currently occupying the Chief Executive’s mansion?
Officially, Beijing insists that whatever happens in Hong Kong is a matter of the territory’s internal affairs. In fact, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, Hua Chunying, went so far as to say this week that Beijing has zero jurisdiction over Hong Kong or the position of its embattled chief executive.
But no one seriously believes that in Hong Kong. Even ardent critics of these protests—and there are many, from pro-Beijingers to annoyed businessmen—will concede that China is the sole guardian of Hong Kong; anyone appointed to oversee the territory is merely acting on behalf of Beijing.
So, in short, everyone knows Leung is a mere puppet with zero power and will read out whatever the communists dictate to him. Never was this more obvious than in a speech made after China issued its White Paper on August 31 about how it defines universal suffrage—the provocation that brought about these protests. Leung uttered phrases and used vocabulary usually associated with the Chinese President or the high-pitched spokespeople at the Foreign Ministry. Words like “harmony,” “the Chinese Dream,” “future prosperity” are exactly what Xi Jinping and his comrades talk about on TV every day on the mainland.
And then there’s “foreign interference”—a phrase used by shady leadership and dictatorship bent on blaming anyone but them, as if every problem is a sinister plot from abroad. Hongkongers simply do not buy that. The vast majority grew up under pretty benign British colonial rule and as such suspicion of outsiders is not in the locals’ DNA in the same way that is perhaps more pervasive on the mainland.
So whenever Leung says these words—as he did again during Wednesday’s National Day celebrations—he is seen as out of touch by many in Hong Kong.
“He’s not one of us,” social worker Fermi Wong tells The Daily Beast during a late-night sit-in at the shopping district of Causeway Bay, where the usual traffic, bargain hunters and jewelry browsers have given way to loudspeakers, debaters, stacks of water bottles, phone charger stations and banners mocking Leung.
Ms. Wong, wearing the now-familiar yellow ribbon which, along with the umbrella and goggles, has become a familiar symbol of this mini-uprising, points to Leung’s insincerity as one major reason her lack of confidence in his leadership.
“He doesn’t even try to act sincere. He speaks like a robot and has no idea how we true Hongkongers feel,” she said, wearing a face mask in fear of a sudden onslaught by the police force, even though it remained absent. “So our fight is personal. It’s all in or nothing. The fact that he’s also incompetent just makes it easier for us to find another reason to come out and protest.”
Wong’s participation is nothing new. As a former executive director of Hong Kong Unison, which deals with social services in the city, she’s been at the forefront of these protests and is close to the Occupy Central leader, Benny Tai. But many more tolerated or at least showed no interest in Leung for a long time—until tear gas was deployed against the demonstrators last Sunday. Of those who were caught in the scuffle, many were teenagers, students, civic activists, and pensioners.
Eighteen-year-old LS, a first-year student at Hong Kong University and first-time protester, was so outraged by what he saw on television that he felt compelled to join in the sit-in the very next day.
As we talked amid a sudden thundery downpour in Kowloon, which left overnight campers and voluntary medical workers scrambling for cover, LS said he was pessimistic about where all this might lead. But he plans to keep it up. “I know we can’t change the system and I know that even if Leung steps down, whoever that replaces him will certainly be someone pro-Beijing,” he said. “That’s fine—just as long as that person also understands our true concerns, and respects the core values of Hongkongers: fairness, integrity and dignity. Leung embodies none of these. But it’s still a worthwhile cause. We’d rather have some dignity than none at all.”
So, the protest is a gamble—and many people know that. The aim is very pragmatic and much less idealistic than, say, similar protests in Egypt or Turkey in the last few years. No one’s calling for the head of Xi Jinping because they know it’s impossible. Another young protester in Mong Kok even told The Daily Beast that calling for Xi Jinping to go is tantamount to interfering in China’s internal affairs—forgetting that he’s on the streets due to Chinese interference in Hong Kong. Leung, on the other hand, is well within their reach.
No one knows how these protests will end. Many are certain that China will unleash something sinister in the territory this week if the protests continue. Hui, a tired-looking 60-year-old retiree watching the 3 a.m. sit-in on Nathan Road in Kowloon, is sure that Chinese thugs could be roaming the streets soon. “They’ll send people in to sow unrest—they may already be here. China is capable of anything,” the father of two says, not ruling out the possibility the People’s Liberation Army to do the dirty work.
And do people fear violence? “Of course!” an elderly grandmother tells us in a council estate in the protest-free zone of east Kowloon. “If we fight, we’re doomed. But if we don’t fight, we’re also doomed. I’d rather our people tried and failed than not try at all. I’m too old to do it myself but my heart is with the protesters!”